Waste not, want not. Sandra Sassow lives by that motto, both at home and in her working life as the CEO and co-founder of SEaB Energy, an international specialist company working in the renewable energy and energy from waste sectors. Based at the University of Southampton Science Park, at Chilworth, it has developed Muckbuster and Flexibuster – compact, easy to install, turnkey Anaerobic Digestion (AD) systems in shipping containers.
Involved from childhood in the USA in her family’s NYSE-listed environmental consulting firm and chemical manufacturing company, she has – in the past two decades – launched several products into new markets in Europe and the USA. With a growing number of women emerging in high profile ’clean tech’ careers, Sue Hughes of The Business Magazine met Sandra Sassow just before she left for the Clean and Cool Mission Brazil.
You have a manufacturing and business background by virtue of your family; was that where the earliest entrepreneurial seeds were sown?
Straight out of school my first job was with a large corporate, where I realised I wanted to work with fast-paced smaller companies. I considered being a doctor but I really couldn’t get over the sight of blood. I wanted to work where I gave something back, but it’s been in a non-medical field. Dad was an inventor and my entire family, which is large, is entrepreneurial. Dinner table conversation often turns to business at family gatherings. Just the nature of being an entrepreneur.
Why and how did you set up the business?
My husband Nick’s background was looking at renewable energy options for large oil and gas corporates, a niche marketplace which was not fully exploited. I have a BSc in Biology, but Nick developed our, now patented, highly-portable energy generator that turns food and bio-waste into energy, heat and revenue. There was obvious demand for a greater choice of distributed power generation options in the renewables sector and anaerobic digestion (AD) was the most attractive technology. Centralised large-scale AD could not be the only solution for converting organic waste to energy. Our solution has established market demand, at home and abroad. The systems are modular, easily configured and scalable to address food waste and other bio wastes directly at the sites of smaller waste producers, who typically generate between 200 and 1,000 tonnes of waste per year. There’s a big market for decentralised community solutions and we opted to go with that.
How did it grow from that point?
There’s so much interest in what we’re doing that we have been very responsive to inbound enquiries. Besides Europe and the US, our systems have seen increased appeal in developing countries, where the electricity supply is unstable and expensive, and within island nations as they tackle growing waste issues and reduce their reliance on imported fuel. As first to market with a mobile solution, we have attracted worldwide attention. There is more interest in clean tech investment as fuel costs face ongoing rises. We need to decentralise how we manage waste conversion, to offset pollution, and turn it into energy. It has applications for the World Health Organisation, disaster recovery and so many sectors.
What is the most notable achievement so far?
I have commented in the past that it’s taking a mindshare in the industry and modifying it to create a niche for ourselves with a redistribution in the balance of power by allowing everyone to create their own energy and become sustainable. The waste and energy sector was highly controlled by big players and only available to businesses on a large scale. It is evolving and we are playing an active role in that. We are working with a housing association in the UK, so that it does not haul away waste, but uses it to create energy. In the USA market our units can be used to lower fuel poverty costs. An energy mix can blend solar, offshore and wind, waste, but we are a different animal. People need to appreciate that waste has a value and that they have access to it. The hotel here on the Science Park turns its food waste into renewable energy using our units. Many businesses, especially in the food production and hospitality sectors, are realising the potential of managing bio-waste on-site. They can save money by doing away with collection and disposal, and convert waste into electricity, which they can use or sell back to the grid. It makes sound economic sense and reduces their carbon footprint.
Where is the company going in the next three to five years?
The focus is on selling products, but if more cash was available then I see geographies where our units are needed. Look at islands which ship in water and ship out their waste – waste which could be used to desalinate water. Our average domestic waste travels 70 miles on collection, in a truck getting around 3mpg, stopping and starting. That is so much energy being wasted. We need to think back to a century ago when containers were reusable, not plastic, and ask ’why we are sending waste so far?’ Social entrepreneurship is important to me, but it will follow in good time because I want to see our company firmly established and making a big impact in waste, energy and managing pollution. Our ultimate goal is to create a source of energy where we can bring electrification, sewage treatment and clean water to remote village areas all over the world.
Which entrepreneur has taught you a valued lesson and what is it?
I admire those companies which are viewed as leaders in thought processes, Amazon’s one example. We look at how we want to be viewed in our marketplace and as we are undergoing a complete shift in our industry; we want to be the disrupters. Marissa Mayer is successfully combining a high-flying career at Yahoo! with a family and challenging industry on the accepted way of doing things. Controversy is not a bad thing.
Location, location, location – how fundamental to SEaB Energy’s success is this environment?
The Science Park has been marvellous, very supportive and our visibility and profile have grown. We started in a garage, now we are in a hub of entrepreneurial new businesses. We moved here three years ago and it has given us flexibility to shrink or grow, plus a great service offering from other businesses which can provide HR or accounts support, integral to helping us build our business and allowing us to get on with our core business – ENERGY from waste.
Investment in clean tech is growing. Why are investors becoming less risk averse?
Clean tech investments have matured and so have we as a corporate. It’s less risky overall when investors consider this sector.
What are your thoughts on how science is taught and boosting manufacturing careers to the next generation?
We’ve brought work placements in from the very beginning, so young people start in a small company in a very broad role, experiencing every aspect, from the technical through to office roles. You also need to take industry into schools and make science – and its application – more fun.
As a start-up is there any one issue that’s had you flummoxed?
The supply chain is the number one issue as we have brought to market a new product of a different size in the existing sector. Components don’t fit, so we have had to work with suppliers to make things smaller or find suppliers from other sectors who can solve the problem of what we require.
Awards are great recognition, please elaborate on some.
As with my children, I have no favourite. They are special in their own way. We have been recognised with a lot of awards, which in turn are wonderful, as they recognise the work by the entire team. They include: Defense Energy Technology 2013 Challenge Winner, US Defense Department; Resource Revolution Award Winner, 2013; Innovation and Technology Award, Test Valley Business Awards, 2012; Best Micro AD Project, UK AD & Biogas Association, 2012. SEaB is also shortlisted for an ENDS Green Economy Award and I have been nominated for Eco Entrepreneur of the Year at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
How do you manage the home/work balance with four children?
Nick and I tag team it for home and business. If I go to my son’s match I may work later at night. Our children are aged 10 to 23 years, and as I have no UK family we have always ensured that their home environment was stable.
Other than speaking French, German and Spanish, do you have any hidden talents?
I ride, ski, play tennis, love the outdoors but am not a golfer; it’s best not to mention heels on a corporate golf day in the past.
Do you regard a working knowledge in one other language as an essential skill?
Cultural awareness is more important. I’m about to head off to several countries in South America, starting in Brazil. Our corporate literature and company colours match the Brazilian flag, which would go down well in Brazil, but not necessarily in the other countries I am visiting. The company branding will not alter, but it was good timing to become aware as we needed new brochures printed. The Clean and Cool Mission Brazil, organised by the Technology Strategy Board and partners, is designed to open up new markets for products and presents a great opportunity for us.
It’s such a fast-moving world, do you think your children will follow an innovative technological path?
Ranging from fine arts and fashion, physics and math to sport, I think they will innovate in their areas of expertise.
Sandra Sassow: www.seabenergy.com